Commencement Speech to Conflict Resolution MA Graduates 2013
Prof. Udi Sommer
Dear guests, proud parents and family members, friends, honorable faculty members and the graduates of the 2013 class of the international masters program in conflict resolution and mediation at Tel Aviv University --- congratulations !
I was honored and humbled by your invitation to be the speaker at your convocation. This is a very special occasion, where we celebrate your terrific accomplishment – graduating a highly competitive international program, en par with any such program in the country and overseas, in a world class university. Apart from being a highly competitive program in its admissions policy, the curriculum of the Conflict Resolution program is highly demanding, with classes running the gamut from game theory and research methods (oh, that particular one was so much fun, wasn’t it?), to intensive workshops on the actual practice of conflict resolution. You examine conflicts in various arenas, from the business world to armed conflicts and from national and international legal conflicts to racial and ethnic tensions. Furthermore, you learn a range of approaches to how to resolve conflicts of those different types.
This is a graduation ceremony of a graduate program, a program that is not aimed to give you a general education like in college, but rather one that is designed to train you with specific practical and analytic skills that would help you in real life and on the ground. Accordingly, I think of my talk here today as a genuine address – one that talks about the world as it really is – you are not merely young adults graduating college, but real adults, so I think I can afford this privilege. It is not that convocations during college graduation are not meant to do the same in certain ways, but I always find that those paint a picture that is a tad too rosy.
The first thing that came to my mind when Eppie invited me to teach at the program a couple of years back was a troubling question – who would make it all the way to Israel from overseas to learn about conflict resolution? After all, my homeland is in one of the most conflict-ridden regions on the face of this planet. In fact, some would say that its very existence is the source of many of the tensions around. Why, then, would international students want to come to ISRAEL of all places to study conflict RESOLUTION? See, I was born and raised in this country, and as such I understand this place not only because of what I read or wrote about it, but because it is a part of me, of my life and of the life of my loved ones. And this place has intractable conflicts of various sorts running in its veins. Both externally and internally, conflicts are ubiquitous. Externally, the Arab-Israeli conflict on the different forms it has taken, and internally, tensions between religion and secularism, between hawks and doves, etc. Secretary Kerry’s efforts aside, those conflicts of different forms, however, are far from the point of resolution – but I guess you had noticed that before you decided to come here. Yesterday might have been a historical day. A day when a pregnancy was conceived, a pregnancy that in 9 months would deliver the resolution of the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But it is yet far too early to judge whether the peace talks would be successful. Thus, I suspect that you chose this program and its particular location, because there is some appeal for you in conflicts themselves, and not just in their resolution. Accordingly, today I would like to talk in the praise of conflicts, rather than about what you have been learning throughout the program, which was basically how to get rid of them. Arguably, this would be somewhat of an inverse picture of what you have covered over the past year in your classes and workshops.
So, here goes - conflicts, I would like to argue, are at the same time appealing and scary, attractive and appalling, clearly hard to live with but often, maybe too often, unavoidable. We detest them and need them, and in any event have them around us, often involving us, at all times. Let me start with a personal experience. When I was young (younger than I am today, and believe it or not, even younger than you, well, at least most of you), I found conflicts fascinating and even captivating and at the same time also paralyzing to the point of incapacitation. I was in my early teens when a young Israeli, approximately my age at the time, who had happened to be a martial arts national champion, survived an attack by terrorists in a lonely valley where he was traveling with a friend. He fought his attackers and was able to scare them away. This type of knockout resolution to the conflict was so alluring, that I resolved to become a martial arts champion myself. To this day, I am yet to take my first Karate class.
Yet, my fascination with conflicts persisted, and until my early adulthood, I was always transfixed when a brawl took place somewhere around me. Whether the individuals punching each other were in a Tel Aviv alley or a New Delhi slum, I was on the one hand unable to take my eyes off the scene, and on the other feeling a strong urge to flee. Beyond the fear that filled me, I was obtrusively reluctant to leave before observing how this brutal and raw form of a conflict were to unfold. It wasn’t just the final outcome that I was interested in (yes, I did want to find out who won), but also I wanted to expose how the different parties behaved and decipher the lifecycle of the conflict itself. I was interested in the twists and turns of the plot and not just in the bottom line. While in recent years I have found myself involved in conflicts more often, I think this position of an observer, which I had taken for many years, provided me with some insights. I’d be the first to say that when it comes to conflicts, I am not a natural. As such, though, I believe that some of the insights I would like to offer here today might be useful to you, as they have been to me over the years.
The first point concerns the type of conflicts that you would encounter in your professional life – with colleagues (those you consider friends and those that you don’t), in the workplace and outside of it, with superiors and with your supervisees. Whether you do extremely well or even just reasonably well, you are bound to have conflicted relationships with other individuals, both within your organization and outside of it. Those conflicts, you will find out, are unavoidable. This may be for objective reasons such as the scarcity of resources. Alternatively, it may be for utterly personal reasons, related to the personal attributes and personality traits of other people as well as your own (it really DOES take two to Tango). To make things even more complicated, those conflicts are likely to arise, or at least to spike, at the worst possible timing – when the stakes are high and when the time is short.
Over time, and being experts in this type of skills, you will find your own set of techniques for how to deal with those conflicts. I would, however, urge you to pursue rather than to evade them. I am not saying here that you should be out there seeking out conflicts. But let me tell you – if you haven’t experienced a conflict for a while, something must be wrong. While there are conflicts that could and should be avoided, and one should be wise enough to choose their battles, there are certain conflicts that in order to achieve your goals and realize your aspirations you will have to engage in. Worthy goals such as political inclusion and equality (for women, ethnic groups, sexual minorities or what have you) or more personal goals such as fame, money, power or whatever you deem a goal worth pursuing --- any of those goals is unlikely to be achieved without a conflict or two (or three) on the way to success.
If you aim for the sky, which I strongly urge you to do, conflicts will come your way and in order to make it in life big time, some of those conflicts will be inescapable. Do NOT hesitate to engage, and when you do, do it with all the tenacity and wisdom, sophistication and creativity, and assertiveness and tenderness you can garner. Sometimes you will end up with the upper hand and sometimes you won’t. In certain cases what seems to be losing in the short run will end up yielding benefits in the long term, but whatever you do, be there, bring yourself in your fullness into how you deal with the conflict. This means that you will likely be more vulnerable, but at the end of the day, people want to know whom they are dealing with. Furthermore, whatever the outcome of the conflict may be, you will know that you had given it all you had. And conflicts have a life of their own, which means that however the current cycle ends, it will inform the parties the next time around. Be yourself in the current conflict, and people will know what to anticipate next time they have to deal with you. In short, choose your battles, but in the ones that you choose, fight like there’s no tomorrow. To reach your goals, engaging in those conflicts is necessary. What is more, I would like to argue that in some cases life is such that it is only through conflicts that you will progress towards your goals. Certain things happen in conflicts that do not happen elsewhere, which leads me to my next point.
Conflicts may be, and often are, stressful situations, because the stakes are so high, because the tension is so persistent. Yet, during the time that you are involved in a conflict, do not be only in the mindset of conflict resolution. Resolution is not always the ultimate goal. This is true because ending a conflict prematurely may not work well for any of the parties involved. Furthermore, it is also true because, conflicts are a place where important things happen. As such, conflicts in and of themselves may be vital. There are certain functions that they serve. It is for a reason, after all, that conflicts are so omnipresent in our life, and that you have decided to dedicate your life to dealing with them.
There is clearly something exciting about conflicts. It is for a reason that so many people, organizations, groups, governments, firms, parties and institutions engage in them and while doing so devote so much of their energies and resources to the causes under conflict. The result is that creativity, inspiration and change all run high in and around conflicts. Think about many of the most inspirational moments in history, and you will soon realize that they were a part of some major conflict that in most cases was far from being resolved. This applies equally well to large-scale political conflicts and to conflicts that you experience within yourselves. One still gets the chills from the inspiration in Dr. Martin Luther King’s I have a Dream speech. When you hear his words echoing in the rally on Washington 50 years minus a fortnight ago to the day, the inspiration still resonates within you. Yet, the energies on the Mall that day, the political mobilization, the sense that history was being made, were not because the conflict was resolved - far from it. It would take months and years, sophisticated political moves and brave political leadership to edge closer to racial equality in America. But, it was there and then, at the midst of the conflict, that individuals and organizations rose to the moment and got the wheels of history moving.
And at the personal level, think about yourselves. No two people experience the same conflict, and no two people react to conflicts the same way. But if you think about a question that bothered you for a while, a critical issue that you had to deal with, a problem that refused to go away and just kept popping up at the worst possible moments, you know what a conflict feels like. It is such conflicts, however, conflicts concerning who we are, what we wish to become, who we love and what we fear, that also drive us. Oedipus travelled far away, but could not escape his conflict. Our destiny is no different. Yet, it is when dealing with such internal conflicts that we come to know ourselves. It is such conflicts that drive our creativity and push us beyond our comfort zones to do great things and transcend what we used to believe were our limits. As such, those conflicts are a source for growth and development. They are a place where we become who we are and go beyond what we thought we could be. Thus, learning to live with those conflicts, giving them the time needed to unfold, is an important skill, not easily mastered.
It is funny to reach such a conclusion at the graduation ceremony of a program in conflict RESOLUTION, but I think both within our own mental worlds and outside of them, conflicts are often the place where we WANT to be. The virtues of conflicts are not to be underestimated. Think about your program, I bet the most successful classes were those where fierce debate took place, where different opinions were expressed, where conflicting voices coexisted. These were the classes where real growth happened. And it was the conflict itself, rather than the final outcome, which was the critical element. It was the debate rather than the final conclusion that was the most important learning experience. It took professional preparation, it took endurance, it took the courage to voice your thoughts, but eventually these were the most rewarding moments. I urge you here today to take this learning experience, capitalize on it and make use of it wherever you go and as far high as you soar.
Today marks the end of your professional training here at Tel Aviv University. But it is also the beginning of your professional journey as graduates of this wonderful program. Go out there and resolve conflicts – make peace between nations, multinational corporations, individuals, lovers, firms, sports teams and so on and so forth. Yet, while you are busy making peace and getting rid of conflicts, also remember their value and their critical importance for how we all move forward in this world.